Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, has spoken of her regret at watching a Broadway musical and shopping for shoes in Manhattan while Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
By Jon Swaine, New York
In a new memoir, Miss Rice describes “kicking herself” for taking a holiday in August 2005 as the disaster struck, killing more than 1,800 people and throwing George W. Bush’s presidency into crisis.
As the most senior black member of Mr Bush’s administration, she was forced to rush to the Deep South to fight claims that the White House’s disastrously slow response was racially motivated.
Miss Rice, now 56, admits that before leaving for New York, she “didn’t think much about the dire warnings” and did little except check that her department’s offices in the Gulf of Mexico were secure.
After checking into the Palace Hotel, she saw news reports that Katrina had struck, and had a brief phone conversation with Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Secretary.
“He said he’d call if he needed me,” she writes. “I hung up, got dressed, and went to see Spamalot,” the musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “The next morning, I went shopping at the Ferragamo shoe store,” she adds in extracts of the book, titled No Higher Honor, which have been published by Newsweek magazine.
The following day, Miss Rice’s activities were splashed through the pages of New York tabloids, which claimed she was berated by a fellow shopper for buying “thousands of dollars worth” of designer shoes while people died. The reports were highlighted on the front page of an influential US news website.
“My senior adviser, Jim Wilkinson, walked into my suite,” she writes. “‘Boss, I should have seen this coming,’ he said. He showed me the day’s Drudge Report headline on the Web: ‘Eyewitness: Sec of State Condi Rice laughs it up at Spamalot while Gulf Coast lays in tatters’.
“I sat there kicking myself for having been so tone-deaf,” she adds. “I was the highest-ranking black in the administration and a key adviser to the President. What had I been thinking?”
Miss Rice flew south to visit victims. She admits that Mr Bush’s team made “many missteps, both in perception and in reality” – and that she told him: “Clearly we have a race problem” – but robustly rejects claims that his response was influenced by prejudice.
“It was so unfair, cynical, and irresponsible,” she writes. Many commentators point to Katrina as the turning point in Mr Bush’s presidency and say that his approval ratings never recovered.
In an interview with the magazine on Monday Miss Rice also claims that Mr Bush’s decision to invade Iraq under his “freedom agenda” facilitated the revolutions of this year’s Arab Spring.
“There is both a moral case and a practical one for the proposition that no man, woman or child should live in tyranny,” she said. “Those who excoriate the approach as idealistic or unrealistic missed the point. In the long run, it is authoritarianism that is unstable and unrealistic”.
In her memoir Miss Rice also details the long-renowned feuds she had with Dick Cheney, the Vice President, and Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, over Iraq and the handling of terror suspects. She describes being undermined by them both and by Mr Bush, and discloses that at one stage she threatened to resign.